Review: MacBook Pro 16" (late 2016, Earth II)

I told myself I wasn't going to do this.

Just under two years ago, I had been holding out for years for Apple to introduce a MacBook Pro that undid the sins of the late 2016 model: Touch Bar, butterfly-mechanism keyboard and entirely Thunderbolt 3/USB-C. With rumors swirling all 2019, it took Apple until November 13th to introduce the first 16" model, which ditched the problematic butterfly switches, shrunk the Touch Bar to allow a physical Escape key and bumped the specifications.

With my then current pre-Touch Bar model crumbling, I bit the bullet and upgraded. It cost, by far, the most I had spent on a Mac, dongles to enable connectivity and compatibility and additional chargers not included. But it was a necessary investment, budgeted to last four to five years.

What none of us knew at the time was that work was already proceeding on its successor; the first Apple Silicon full-sized, full-featured MacBook Pro made for professionals, made to include all the features we had been clamoring for all these years.

The keyboard

The keys are, from all I can tell, the same type as the ones used in the 2019 model. Some say they can feel a difference between the older model MacBook Pros and these, and side by side I can maybe make it out, but they are what I want in a key. Snappy and distinct, with the right level of travel.

What's more, there are now 12 additional keys, taking the space of the Touch Bar, and stretching to fill a full-sized row, leaving the arrow keys (rightly) as the only half-height keys. After two years with a Touch Bar, being able to reach for and press a full-sized volume key feels almost ostentatiously luxurious.

Aesthetically, the keyboard well has been anodized a matching black, and it is a great decision that cleans up the visual clutter somewhat without sacrificing the legibility of the key shapes.

The function key system shortcuts are new, and the keyboard backlight controls are notably relegated, possibly in a message that it is time for the functionality to fade to the background and for the brightness to adjust itself. (You can still adjust the brightness in the Keyboard part of System Preferences.)

As for the rest, Do Not Disturb gets its own key, as does Spotlight and Siri. I don't use Siri and pressing its key (F5) is now permanently allocated to bringing up a window asking me if I'd like to change my mind. Together with Spotlight, which I always invoke faster with Cmd+Space, I would like to be able to reassign these keys to different functions.

As with all Apple Silicon Macs, the fn key now pulls double duty as the "Globe" (🌐) key, which when pressed alone brings up the Emoji palette. This feature has been available since macOS 11, as a checkbox option, but the key is now also referred to as the Globe key in the user interface of some settings related to keyboard layouts.

The ports

Blissfully, the sides now feature many things besides just plain Thunderbolt/USB-C. Let's start from the left.

First, you can find a new MagSafe 3 port for magnetically attached charging, which now involves a plain, braided and still expensive MagSafe-to-USB-C cable, but which at least is a separate purchase. Additionally, the 3.5 mm headphone jack has been moved back to the left edge (which I personally liked better) and it supposedly works better with high-impedance headphones.

Going around to the right, you will find an HDMI 2.0 port (and not HDMI 2.1), and an SDXC port capable of UHS-II, but not UHS-3. Neither are the absolute best, most up-to-date, most capable that could have appeared in their spot, which is frustrating considering the price and profile of the computer.

You will also find three Thunderbolt 4/USB 4 USB-C ports (two on the left, one on the right). What you won't find is even a single USB-A port (the traditional USB port). As someone who, even after years of accumulating USB-C devices, still needs to plug in USB-A devices, and still needs to do so much more often than use SD cards or HDMI, this is beyond frustrating. I would still have needed a dongle for the occasional Ethernet use or different video outputs, but I could have minimized my need to carry around, keep track of and remember to bring a dongle. After all, during the introduction of the MacBook Pro, Apple itself claimed to heed the wishes of professionals to not need adapters. With that goal in mind, eschewing even a single USB-A port is a very odd trade-off, since it, unlike Ethernet (which many production professionals also need) would have fit on the side.

The display

Returning to 2019 for a moment, it also saw the tremendously expensive Pro Display XDR, aimed to act as a less expensive alternative to professional production-level reference monitors. Whereas the Pro Display XDR had 576 local dimming zones powered by LEDs, whose need for constant cooling informed the lattice pattern on the back of the display, the new MacBook Pro display is one of the first mini-LED displays, packing in 2500 local dimming zones (with 4 mini-LEDs each), into an assembly that is millimeters thin, and still delivering the same color space, 1600 nits peak and 1000 nits sustained brightness specifications.

The new display also picks up 120 Hz and adaptive refresh rates (ProMotion), putting it still behind many PC laptops and desktop monitors (some of which go for 360 Hz), but matching this year's iPhone 13 Pro and 2017's iPad Pro, and besting the 60 Hz Pro Display XDR (which audience is often reticent to venture above film refresh rates at all).

In a sentence, the quality of the display is probably the best display you've ever seen on a laptop. OLED-level inky deep blacks with sharp contrast and even higher resolution. The bezels are even narrower, with the top corners even following the curve of the casing. You may even call it…

A top notch display

Smack dab in the top middle of the display is a notch; an area where the display ceases, for the benefit of the camera and related sensors. I think notches are an eyesore that at best you learn to ignore, but in this case I see a number of things working to its advantage.

Without the notch, the display would be roughly equal in proportions and area as the prior 16" MacBook Pro, and would match a full 16:10 display. The additional area is extra space and houses the menu bar, which for me personally is sparsely populated in almost every application. In applications with a large number of menus (which many professionals could need to use), or in any application for people who use dozens of the top right "menu extras", you do start to run out of space, with menu items wrapping around or their titles being truncated. This is not a good look, and it may be a better look to enable the quizzically titled Get Info option "Scale to fit below built-in camera", which may as well be named "Move below the notch", which causes the display rows alongside the notch to be ignored.

In iPhones, full screen widescreen video brings out the worst of the notch, making it cut out an unsightly bite of the display. Here, the aspect ratio of videos work to its advantage. Most are 16:9 or wider and are already centered in the display with letterboxing, putting them far away from the notch. The mini-LED nature of the display also leaves the letterboxing areas black and the notch barely distinguishable at all.

So is the notch needed from a technical standpoint? We've all seen phones; why can't you just fit the camera up in the bezel area? Because on phones, you still get 2-4x the depth to work with, and cameras can be small due to fitting all the circuitry behind the lens and the housing. Here, the module needs to be spread out instead, which means placing it entirely inside the bezel area probably did not work well at all. I'm sure you could fit some form of camera in the space allotted, but I'm not sure it would be one you'd want to use.

Given the result is both a good camera and additional screen space, and given that I don't suffer from stuffed menu bar syndrome, I'm willing to forgive the notch. My main complaint is that it's not possible to, out of the box, set the menu bar to pitch black, which would hide the notch much better. This is not a guess; opening an application in full-screen does this, and it is indeed almost not noticeable.

Of cores

I wanted to maintain my 64 GB of memory, which meant I had to pick the M1 Max, which is the only variant that allows for 64 GB. The heaviest pressure I put on the GPU in daily use is to have way too many windows and tabs open. On the previous MacBook Pro, the GPU had 8 GB of memory to work with, and I would not be surprised if most of it was populated with texture caches for all the various surfaces to draw.

Historically, shared memory between a CPU and an integrated GPU has been a feature of the low-end processors, or at least of the energy-efficient processors. Those tend to work with miniscule amounts of RAM and over slow buses, and the circumstances have added up to a poor experience – a slow GPU, stealing a static amount of memory from an already constrained CPU.

"Unified memory", as Apple terms it, on the most fundamental level is not different from these shared memory shenanigans. But as implemented on the M1 Pro and M1 Max, the balance shifts. The memory bandwidth is now 200 or 400 GB/s, which is in line with what purposely high-bandwidth directly-attached GPU memory provides. The access latency is very low, and the throughput is significant. Most of the GPU rendering is also probably being done by system frameworks using Metal, which is optimized to use representations for pixel buffers or textures that the GPU cores natively need, which means the CPU can produce an image and the GPU can use it without transforming it into another representation, and without even needing to copy it into another location. On the scale of a system, all of this adds up. Instead of two cooks trying to work separately in a galley the size of a closet, it ends up more being two cooks trying to cooperate, preparing and picking up from one another, in a sizable and well-kitted-out kitchen.

I have not used an M1 Mac, but have heard tales of a single core saturating the memory bandwidth, and one of the reasons I stayed away was because of the limited connectivity. The architectures of the M1 Pro and M1 Max, keeping the fundamental CPU cores themselves but expanding on everything else, shows that these shortcomings were not intentional declarations of good enough, but transitional pains that will eventually go away. Depending on the benchmark chosen, many things can be shown, including that the GPUs are far from adapted to be competitive with desktop GPUs at gaming. But the collected performance of the CPU cores is competitive with many desktop CPUs from Intel and AMD, and this bodes well for the future.

All of the above in an architecture that in both an absolute and relative sense sips power and thus both gives long battery life and minimizes fan noise and heat makes it hard to be calm and reasoned about the performance of the MacBook Pro.

Industrial design

In 2015, the 12" MacBook started a new era of industrial design and of priorities for Apple. For one and a half years, its impact on the upper end of the MacBook family was unknown, but the 2016 MacBook Pro brought in slimmer lines, the butterfly keyboard and entirely USB-C I/O.

As of last week, this era is over and buried, and the 2021 MacBook Pro, being the first major redesign, defines a new picture. The Pro products are allowed to be more substantial, in every sense of the word. Thicker and heavier are not absolute terms of revulsion, but axes along which the product can be measured. There are laptops three times the thickness of the 2021 MacBook Pro, and half the thickness as well. It is a reasonable size and weight for its intended use case, and its format allows it to pack in features that are important. Focusing, more than just saying "no" as many times as you can to various impingements of a designed dreamed up in isolation and divorced from purpose and mechanical realities, is the process of choosing tradeoffs.

Design is how it works, and the 2021 MacBook Pro, through its 100% recycled aluminum shell, through its comfortable keyboard and outstanding trackpad, through its sharp display, through its groundbreaking M1 Pro/Max system-on-chip, through even its camera notch and still-too-few ports, works very well for its intended use. It knows its market – the people who need to or who want to do a lot of things with their computers – and is designed for them.

It is also expensive. More than any high-end Mac in a decade, it provides a mix of features and capability that could actually command a premium, even if we weren't in a worldwide semiconductor crisis. And it finally catches up to high refresh rate displays.

In 2019, the 16" MacBook Pro told us: hey look, at least they're trying again. In 2021, the 14" and 16" MacBook Pro tell us: breathe a sigh of relief. The MacBook Pro has rediscovered what it is.

The hard part now will be going four years without getting the next one.

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